Though the musical gloom makes Seattle seem sunny, Mark Lanegan is as easy-going as a bar chum and relatively quick to laugh, dismissing any weightiness about what he does. "It's rock 'n' roll," he says. "It's not the Olympics."
Lanegan came of age in Seattle during grunge's emergence as the lead singer of Screaming Trees, and subsequently emerged as an adventurous collaborator. He's teamed with Greg Dulli (Gutter Twins), Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), and Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian), among others, in addition to 10 solo albums.
But were it not for a chance encounter with (future) Screaming Trees bassist and underclassman Van Conner while a high school senior, Lanegan might never have become a musician. (He cracked once that he was such a bad drummer, they made him sing.)
"I was listening to punk rock in the '70s as a young kid, but all by myself; I never met anyone that listened to that kind of music," says Lanegan, who grew up in Ellensburg, Wash. (pop. 19,786). "Just by chance I was in detention and one of the guys in the class was Van Conner... I started talking to him and found out that we listened to some of the same music."
The Trees broke out in '92 on the Nirvana wave, scoring several hits including "Nearly Lost You" and "Dollar Bill" off their sixth album, Sweet Oblivion. The follow-up, Dust, took four years, hampered by Lanegan's drug issues, infighting, an extended hiatus, and major label pressure culminating in their breakup.
Lanegan often draws comparisons to Nick Cave, an artist with a similar predilection for dark places. "There's a master and pupil relationship. That's about as deep as it goes," Lanegan laughs. "He's one of the all-time greats. Really inspiring and always impressive. I love his music and he's a great guy as well."
There was a moment where Lanegan wondered if his music had played a role in a close friend's suicide. "He was listening to one of my records a lot and I thought, 'This is terrible, this music somehow had something to do with this.' But his widow said, 'No man, he was listening to it because it was comforting,'" Lanegan says.
"When she put it in that perspective I thought to myself of some of the music that has gotten me through really hard times," he continues, comparing his love for Joy Division's Closer. "It was all I listened to for six months in this bleak wintertime in the '80s when it came out. I was so depressed and that record got me through it, so I understood it in that way."
Lanegan is currently supporting Gargoyle, an album he recorded with longtime producer Alain Johannes and collaborator Rob Marshall. Lanegan had contributed vocals for a few tracks for a Marshall project six months earlier.
"I was in the studio with Alain and I thought, 'Man, I like this stuff I'm working on, but I'm not fully convinced that it is the way I wanted it to go,'" he says. "So I sent [Marshall] an email, 'Yo, this is that dude,' and a couple days later he sent me 10 pieces of music fully demoed out. Out of that six of them I just immediately — I wrote all the words in two days. And I thought, 'Now my record has a totally different look.' But it was great."
Lanegan also recently released the Still Life With Roses EP, which features remixes of Gargoyle tracks by people like Adrian Sherwood (Nine Inch Nails) and Andrew Weatherall (Happy Mondays, Primal Scream).
"I'm a big fan of electronic music, for lack of a better term, so doing remixes is really an opportunity for me to hit up people whose music I like and hope they'll do something cool with my shitty tunes," says Lanegan. "I nerd out and send a bunch of fucking Twitter messages to people who don't want to hear from me: 'Hey man, you want to remix one of my songs?' I literally harass the shit out of people to the point where they say, 'Don't email me anymore.'"
Lanegan will be the first to tell you that what he does is the furthest thing from work, but there was a moment where he considered stopping and painting Hollywood sets with his roommate.
"I still ended up going on tour every few months anyway, even though I really didn't want to," he recalls. "So I went with him to work one day and his boss had seen me open for Firehose in 1984 or something and she was like, 'Cool, you can start today.' I was the dipshit on the crew that didn't know anything, though I learned. I have really fond memories of that.
"Doing something that's physical but not necessarily mentally taxing, for me it frees me up creatively," he says. "Toward the end of working on that job I was starting to come around to the idea that I was going to continue to write music... I would start formulating some ideas to work on as soon as I got home."
Not that you should conclude Lanegan is necessarily "satisfied."
"I'm usually not feeling it until it's in the store," he says. "Maybe I'll quit if I ever make a good one. But I ain't happy yet."
Mark Lanegan Band plays on Monday, Aug. 21, at El Club; 4114 Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-436-1793; elclubdetroit.com; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $25.